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3:45 – 5:45pm Session Four

Perspectives from Evolution and Philosophy


FELIX WARNEKEN, Ph.D., Psychology, Max Planck Institute OWEN FLANAGAN, Ph.D., Philosophy, Duke University

PHILLIPE GOLDIN, Ph.D., Psychology, Stanford University

Discussant: BILL NEWSOME, Ph.D, Neurobiology, Stanford University

Title: The Roots of Human Altruism – Evidence from Children and Chimpanzees

Felix Warneken, Ph.D.

Max Planck Institute

One recent debate in psychological and behavioral sciences concerns the origins of human altruism. Several researchers claim that altruistic behaviors (such as helping another person without benefit to oneself) are unique to humans, emanating from a species-unique psychology and cultural practices found exclusively in the human species. Only humans are expected to develop altruistic behaviors during ontogeny, whereas chimpanzees – one of our closest living evolutionary relatives – are only guided by self-interest. Such comparisons with chimpanzees are crucial because they enable us to distinguish aspects of altruism which are shared by the common ancestor to humans and chimpanzees from aspects which developed only in the human lineage. Moreover, a developmental perspective can scrutinize more closely what factors are foundational and facilitative during its ontogenetic emergence. Therefore, I will draw on contemporary on comparative and developmental studies with children and chimpanzees, integrating these results into a framework encompassing both the phylogenetic and ontogenetic origins of altruism in humans. Concerning its phylogenetic origins, recent experiments show that chimpanzees altruistically act towards humans and conspecifics (Warneken et al., 2006, 2007). Ontogenetically, infants as young as 14 to 18 months of age perform acts of spontaneous unrewarded helping, indicating that humans have a predisposition for altruism prior to extensive socialization practices (Warneken et al., 2006, 2007, 2008). Given these deep phylogenetic and ontogenetic roots, I will argue that humans have a biologically based predisposition to act altruistically – a predisposition that socialization practices can build upon.


1) What psychological mechanisms are involved in prosocial behavior? 2) How can measures from psychology and neuroscience be integrated to better understand prosocial behaviors in its full variety? 3) What does it mean that acts of altruism are self-rewarding? Does self-reward undermine the idea of altruistic motivations or is this a conceptual confusion? 4) How can we differentiate different types (and aspects) of prosocial behavior conceptually and empirically (empathy, sympathy, altruism, helping)? 5) How do common socialization practices and specific educational efforts facilitate altruism?

Is Compassion Overrated?

Owen Flanagan, Ph.D.

Duke University

Flanagan (Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism Harvard 1991) was the first contemporary philosopher to suggest that the hypothesis of the modularity of morals (MMH) was worth serious consideration by cognitive science. There is now a serious empirically informed proposal that moral competence and moral performance are best explained in terms of moral modules – evolutionary ancient, fast-acting, automatic, emotionally-based reactions to particular types of socio-moral experience (e.g., Haidt & Joseph 2007). MMH fleshes out an idea, which is nascent, on various interpretations, in Aristotle, Mencius, and Darwin. I discuss the evidence for MMH, specifically an ancient version, “Mencian Moral Modularity,” MMM, that claims four innate modules, and “Social Intuitionist Modularity,” SIM, which claims five innate modules. I critically compare the two moral modularity models (MMM and SIM); discuss whether the postulated modules are best conceived as perceptual and Fodorian or emotional and Darwinian; and discuss whether assuming that either version of MMH is true, MMM or SIM, has any normative ethical consequences whatsoever. The relevance to our topic is this: There are some moral traditions that recommend building the compassion module (Mencius 2A6; Buddhism), others that ask justice/fairness to do the mother lode of moral work (Plato, Aristotle, Liberal Democratic Societies); others that depend on Respect/ Hierarchy (Confucius), and so on. So which is the right way? Which is the best way? With respect to the question of growing compassion, we can ask is compassion necessary for virtue? Is it sufficient? I say that compassion is good, but easily overrated. I’ll explain.